People often ask me what I consider to be the highlight of my UN career. While there were many wonderful moments, hosting the largest collection of world leaders ever assembled to sign the Millennium Declaration in New York is certainly among the top. The can-do spirit in the room was infectious and, for once, the gulf between rich and poor, between countries often at loggerheads with each other, seemed to be bridged by a genuine partnership among nations and people. Development issues were finally elevated to the highest political level and, for the first time, developing countries were challenged to translate their development vision into nationally-owned plans.
There is no doubt that the eight Millennium Development Goals and their framework of accountability have served the world well. They have not only provided a much-needed sense of direction to national plans and international cooperation -- they have also delivered measurable results. We have seen primary school enrollment rates double in Ethiopia and Tanzania and countries like Malawi and Algeria transform themselves from food importers to food exporters. We have seen HIV infections fall significantly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the number of reported malaria cases halve in high-burden countries like Rwanda and Zambia. All around the world, we have seen efforts to achieve MDG-based targets improve the lives of millions of people.
However, despite some encouraging steps forward, we are still far from achieving what we set out to do. Too many people remain caught in extreme poverty, too many remain hungry and sick, too many mothers die in childbirth, and too many children still do not go to school. We are also not yet doing enough to meet basic needs and fulfill basic rights, to protect the environment, to build effective international partnerships for development, or to harness private entrepreneurship to deliver public goods and services to those in need.
The challenges are still great and the circumstances have not become any easier since the Millennium Summit. Back then, there was palpable confidence that the world's problems could be addressed collectively and an open acknowledgment that, in a world of plenty and astounding technological progress, the poverty, hunger, and relative deprivation that so many of our fellow human beings still faced was intolerable.
That confidence has now faded and the international consensus on development is in danger of crumbling under the weight of successive crises and a changing world order -- even as the true significance of our growing interdependence is becoming increasingly obvious. The disappointing Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen was an unfortunate example of this paradoxical trend. On the one hand, the appreciation that global problems cannot be solved in one country or continent alone is growing. On the other hand, this is not translated into decisive action and overdue reform of global governance. Lack of concerted leadership and cumbersome institutional arrangements on the international level and a growing array of financial and political pressures on the national level are proving to be formidable obstacles.
I am worried that these obstacles risk making this week's MDG Review Summit a futile exercise, characterized by grand speeches and carefully-worded promises, but followed by little meaningful action. Several important donors have already reneged on their commitments or at least relaxed their development efforts, using a variety of justifications ranging from concerns about aid efficiency to the need for a more comprehensive approach to achieving development objectives. As a result, the latest projections predict an aid shortfall of around $21 billion against global targets. While I agree that a more coherent and results-oriented approach to development is needed, this should not be used as an excuse to cut financial assistance at the first sign of difficulties. The MDGs do not need fair-weather friends, but serious investors in for the long haul.
Revitalizing the political will to achieve the MDGs and scaling up proven interventions is the linchpin to success. As instigator and guardian of the MDGs, the UN has an important role to play in this process and the High Level Advocacy Group created by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a welcome step in the right direction. The primary responsibility, however, rests with national leaders. Their challenge is to re-articulate a compelling case for global solidarity and equitable growth -- one that embraces but goes beyond aid. One that addresses the growing inequalities between male and female, rural and urban, rich and poor. One that does not measure development and progress purely in terms of GDP but also of the quality and sustainability of growth. The message must be that MDG achievement is not optional, but an essential investment in a fairer, safer and more prosperous world.
But achieving the MDGs is only the first step. For even if we succeed and meet all eight goals by 2015, almost a billion people will continue to live below the poverty line, hundreds of millions will remain hungry and millions will continue to die from preventable diseases or unnecessary complications. We will certainly need to take the MDGs to the next level after the initial deadline. While there is some skepticism about the utility of naming specific goals as basis for development strategies and institutional arrangements, I remain an advocate. After all, who can argue with an objective as simple and powerful as access to food and clean drinking water, jobs, health care and education for everyone?
Kofi Annan was UN Secretary General between 1997 and 2006. He now chairs the Africa Progress Panel (www.africaprogresspanel.org).